The Day the Eggs Wouldn’t Die: A Case Study in Paid Absences for Private Music Teachers

A few days ago, I made a mistake, a horrible one. I had all this leftover bread. I buy it when I’m hungry, only to end up in a staring contest with my calorie tracker. Everything in moderation. So I eat one or two slices and then a week later am left with 18,000 loaves of once-buttery, now-crusty stale goodness that not even my dogs will eat if I “accidentally” drop it on the floor.

I haven’t the heart to throw it all out. Starving kids in Africa, you know. So I decided to make a bread pudding.

What does bread pudding have in it?

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screw you ovum

Eggs. Those devilishly, conniving little sacs of gelatinous protein-goo.

If you remember, last summer I developed an intolerance to eggs. I did, however, discover that I can consume them if they are baked into things, like breads or cookies (ahem…protein bars and healthy carbs), but NOT by themselves. So I thought I was safe.

As it turns out, this bread pudding was a little undercooked. Whoops.

Four hours later, my (frequently recurring) bile looked like something out of Night of the Living Dead. When this happens, I’m done for. Useless. The only remedy is sleep. Pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted slumber (not to be confused with sweaty, feverish bouts of stage-1 drowsiness mingled with intermittent night terrors, which is what my sleep more closely resembles in these situations).

So sleep I did. Right through all of my obligations, which included a worship planning meeting with my pastors and about 11 private lessons (7 in the evening, 4 the next morning).

How does a private music teacher recover financially from this? We don’t get paid sick days.

…or do we?

I have no shame in being totally transparent in this process, as my tuition policies are posted on my website, but I’ll disclose that some people get a little irritated over this. About once a year, the planets align and four or five students in one afternoon will cancel their lessons, leaving me with a nice stream of free time. I made the mistake once of posting about this on Facebook. Something to the effect of “good thing I have a rock-solid studio policy and will now enjoy some paid time off.” A parent saw it and told me they felt it was unprofessional and came across as gloaty. While I’ve since seriously reconsidered what I share on social media, I took the time to explain my policies and why I have to protect myself financially. If a student cancels, it’s pretty hard to collect on that lesson, even if they have paid in advance for it, and especially if they haven’t. For years, I reserved unpaid days for makeup lessons, or was ridiculously lenient on missed events (including giving a credit to a family of three siblings who wanted to trick-or-treat on Halloween instead of attend their lessons, which occurred at 4:00, 4:30, and 5:00). In 2009, I came down with swine flu and missed an entire week of lessons and classes. That was 25% of my income for the month. My “salary” varied by several hundred dollars each month and was too erratic and unpredictable to plan for the things I wanted, like a house and a car (you know, the things for which normal people with normal jobs can plan).

Here’s what I learned from the books (which all say the same thing) and what works for me.

I charge my students a flat monthly tuition rate for their lessons.
This rate is calculated by figuring out the number of lessons in a 16-week semester, taking into account a week off for Thanksgiving, Spring Break, and a considerable amount of time off for Christmas and New Year’s. I add extra for recital fees, group activities, and a makeup lesson. I add up what I want to charge for each event, and call that their semester tuition amount. Then I divide that amount by the number of months in each semester (usually 5; August – December and January – May). That flat amount is what each student pays me per month. If they pay up front for the semester or year, they get a small discount. Some months they may get five lessons, others they may get two or three, but they don’t have to pay extra for anything (recitals, group events, etc). I reserve one week at the end of each semester that I call the “Flex Week.” This is a flexible week of makeup lessons. If a student has to miss a lesson for any reason during the semester, they get one makeup lesson during this week, no questions asked.

Enter in Night of the Living Eggs.
If I consume undercooked bread pudding and am bedridden for 48 hours, I have a few choices:

1. Cancel the lesson; if they have taken their absence already, I offer a credit on the next month’s invoice. If the student has paid for the whole semester up front (and many do), this credit will roll over into the next semester.

2. Cancel the lesson; if they themselves have not taken their absence, they get a makeup credit to use during flex week. If they have to use their absence between the time I cancel and the end of the semester, then I either

  • Offer them a credit on the next month’s invoice
  • or
  • Offer them two back-to-back makeup lessons during the makeup week (or an hour’s lesson).

So how does this work, in the long run? Surely there’s not enough time to offer all my students double lessons in one week of makeups?

Enter the magic of statistics.

When the end of the semester rolls around, a few beautiful things happen:

1. Some students are done, mentally, and don’t care to use their makeup lesson, even if they are entitled to it. If you do the math on this, they have paid less than a dollar more for each of their lessons / events throughout the semester, which is justifiable if they feel they have gotten their money’s worth (i.e. be good at what you do, teachers…karma is real).

2. I set parameters on my flex week. They have to notify me by a set date near the beginning of the month if they want to use their makeup (I e-mail everyone letting them know they are entitled to one). Once that date has passed, I do not hunt people down, and if I haven’t heard from them, they know they have forfeited the lesson because I document like a fiend.

3. Because my teaching load is usually reduced to half during flex week, I can allow double lessons to certain students that need/want that to make up for days have missed.

4. During flex week, the regular teaching schedule does not apply in order to avoid gaps in my teaching. Some people are totally willing to work with an altered lesson time, others are not. The ones that are not say “thank you, see you next semester,” and I can then fit in the ones that are are flexible enough to accommodate a different day or time. There are very few that don’t fit into either camp here, but because there are so few (I’m talking 2-3 out of 35) that will not leave without their makeup(s) and cannot change days or times, I can usually accommodate them without a problem.

5. Flex weeks almost always occur the week before Christmas and my birthday (May 21), so it’s like getting a paid holiday and personal day, which I’m fairly sure most of the “regular job” population gets, if I’m not mistaken.

I’ve also found the universe to work in magnificent, splendid synchrony, which I will demonstrate using a case study from

A Typical Monday vs. The Day The Eggs Wouldn’t Die

7:30-10:00am: Busywork, e-mail, exercise, and course catch-up for my online class, Fundamentals of Arts Management
What really happened: I slept fitfully and dreamed about my grandparent’s house having a secret tunnel full of balloons (what does this mean?)

10:00-12:00pm: worship planning meeting and preparation at the church
What really happened: I woke up with enough time to send a highly detailed text to my understanding pastor. Fell back asleep by managing to find justtheright position to alleviate 10% of the nausea.

12-3: lunch, studio planning & prep work
What Really Happened: more ridiculous sweat-lodge-style sleep under my down comforter, complete with hallucinatory visions of things that surely don’t exist in waking life. Hopefully. Woke up at one point to brush my teeth, drink some water, and recoil in horror at the wretched person-thing staring back at me in the bathroom mirror.

My usual teaching schedule / What Really Happened
3:00: 
a retiree, usually fine with canceling. I credited her lesson.
3:30: this student happened to break his hand last week. His mom e-mailed me to let me know he was going to miss today. Hallelu.
4:00: Happened to need to switch this week. Tacked her onto the end of the day.
4:30: My regular 4:30 had a college interview. She’s missed a total of two lessons in the two years she’s taken from me. She’ll make it up during the flex week.
5:30: Had canceled already because she was in tech week for a show. Will also make up during flex week.
6:30 – 7:30: Two siblings. Had originally planned on moving them to the 4:30-5:30 open slot. I credited them, though probably could have waited until flex week to see if they needed.

All in all, this sickness cost me the price of three lessons. That’s not too shabby, given that the tradeoff would have been losing an entire day’s work OR involuntarily teaching with a trash can strapped to my neck. If you’re interested in the cleaned-up, highly succinct version of this tuition policy, you can visit my website

I do love my life, and I hope this helped you, because I sure disclosed a lot in this post.

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